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Another Rohingya massacre, another media problem for Burma

A Buddhist monk shows an anti-Rohingya message on his palm. (Photo: AP)

By Francis Wade
January 24, 2014

As more details emerge of the massacre on January 13 of at least 40 Rohingya men, women and children in western Burma, the government predictably has gone on the defensive. The UN is now claiming that police in the remote village of Du Chee Yar Tan, northern Arakan state, were among the mob of Arakanese who attacked and killed villagers, allegedly in response to the slaying of a policemen following an earlier bout of violence in January that left at least eight dead. Even though the death toll is likely a conservative one, it stands as the deadliest single incident in Arakan state since October 2012.

The first international media outlet to report on the massacre was Associated Press, drawing on eye-witness testimonies collected by The Arakan Project, which for years has maintained an extensive list of sources on the ground in northern Arakan state. The reason why AP went to The Arakan Project for information is because the government has for years banned journalists from accessing this region (AP’s Robin McDowell last year managed to visit the town of Maungdaw, the first journalist in a long time to do so, but it now sounds like Naypyidaw has reinstated its ban). Upon publishing its report, AP journalists weresummoned by the Ministry of Information. A statement on the ministry’s website said AP’s article “differed from the situation” and that AP “will be responsible if incidents that may harm the tranquility and the Rule of Law take place because of the agency’s reporting.”

This veiled threat shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the government’s continued sensitivity to reports that emerge from Burma’s various media black spots, of which northern Arakan is perhaps the most concerning. They are black spots, as appointed so by the central government, precisely because the situation there reflects very poorly on an administration attempting to claim that it has mended its ways. On top of the restrictions on access to education and healthcare that accompanies the denial of citizenship to Rohingya, humanitarian access to the townships there is severely limited, hence the argument put forward by many observers that the government is trying to starve out the unwanted Muslim minority.

So in light of this, the ministry can hardly demand that journalists “avoid at best erroneous news that are groundless and misleading” whilst denying them access to sites – that seems to be a no brainer, but we’ve become use to them. What this sort of statement attempts to do, were the world as gullible as the government might like to think, is both deny the atrocity, and deflect blame for future atrocities – should violence break out there again, it’ll be the result of AP’s report, and not ultra-nationalist Arakanese groups conspiring with local security forces to make Burma uninhabitable for Rohingya (an issue that these reports are needed to highlight).

The government’s reaction to the TIME Magazine article of June 2013 on extremist monk U Wirathu mirrors the diversionary tactics it is using against AP. Rather than engaging with the actual issues raised in the article – that monks are at the vanguard of an anti-Muslim movement that has spread from Arakan to cover the entire country – its response focused on how such reporting could affect government efforts to rebuild harmony between Buddhists and Muslims, or sully the reputation of Buddhism.

The pressure the government must now feel it is under, given the UN’s accusation that police essentially murdered Rohingya (including children in a retaliatory attack is a shocker that outdoes many of the atrocities the region has witnessed), will likely lead to it further smearing its ‘enemies’, such as AP and other independent media. Its continued unwillingness to open up northern Arakan state to foreign journalists begs the grim question of whether it intends to prolong its maltreatment of Rohingya there, hidden from prying eyes. Otherwise, why not allow journalists in?

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